This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
When Máiría Cahill went public about the sexual abuse she said she suffered at the hands of an IRA operative, she thought she had signed her own death warrant. After being betrayed by people within her own community, subjected to repeated interrogations and denied justice, Máiría took the decision in 2014 to waive her anonymity and speak to BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme. For taking this stand, for coming out as a survivor of sexual violence and of an extrajudicial IRA trial, she was slandered by politicians and smeared by journalists, even in the pages of the Guardian.
“The harassment was ferocious, so much so that it was raised in the three Parliaments: Westminster, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Dáil Éireann,” she reflects nearly a decade after her interview was broadcast. “It was unprecedented to see a sexual abuse victim treated like that.”
Even today, she says former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams refers to her as “that woman”, and many of those within the tight-knit republican community where she grew up regard her as a traitor. She describes republicanism as like a “large dysfunctional family” where to step outside is to be “the target of rumour and innuendo”.
Máiría’s newly released book, Rough Beast is a political memoir as much as a personal one. She pulls a subterranean world of fear, paramilitary secrecy and parallel laws out of the streets of West Belfast and onto the page.
A former Irish Senator and Northern Irish Councillor, Máiría recalls she had originally intended to write a straightforward political analysis. But when she turned to the topic of Belfast in the immediate aftermath of the Belfast Agreement, she found her understanding was overshadowed by her own traumatic past.
“When I first started making notes in 2012 about what happened to me it, was cathartic. My daughter was around two or three, and I was in the middle of the draining four-year wait for the trial. Revisiting everything since has been tough, but I needed to write this book.”
What happened to Máiría reveals much about the grip of the IRA on institutions on both sides of the Irish Sea.
In 1997 Máiría was just 16. Bright and full of youthful zeal, she already had a future marked out in politics. As the great-niece of Joe Cahill, one of the founders of the Provisional IRA, republicanism was in her veins and the Sinn Féin offices served as “a second home”. Gerry Adams, then a family friend, had been mentored by Máiría’s grandfather.
Idealistic though she was, Máiría was already acutely aware that the IRA wielded not only firepower, but also immense social power over the West Belfast community.
Outside of Northern Ireland, the terror wrought by the IRA is often retold as a series of bombings. But the grip republican paramilitaries had over Northern Irish communities also left scars. Máiría describes growing up in an environment where “people have been beaten, abducted and shot for having affairs with the spouses of IRA members” and people could be “punched in the face for not standing up for the Irish national anthem in a bar”. She describes a tense and terror-struck community of rigid conformity where people lived in fear of shadowy summonses from IRA members.
One evening, the 16-year-old Máiría says she was approached by her aunt’s partner, Martin Morris, and one of his friends. She recalls the pair pulling the phone cord out of the wall before telling her “they’d been keeping an eye on her”, that she’d be a good candidate to help them move guns.
With A-Levels in her sights and the usual preoccupations of youth, a terrified Máiría refused to help. She now believes the approach was calculated to frighten her and to embed the message that these men were powerful and dangerous. Both Morris and his friend deny this meeting ever took place.
Less than a week later, Máiría awoke to find a man sexually assaulting her. She believed that man was Morris. This signalled the start of a pattern of abuse that continued for a year. During the assaults and rapes, Máiría would shut her eyes tightly and feign sleep; she recalls it was a desperate attempt to protect herself in the hope that she could “pretend not to know who the attacker was”. She later discovered other of his alleged victims had adopted the same survival tactic.
Traumatised and fearing she was pregnant as a result of the rapes, Máiría turned to older women within the republican movement for support. She showed the livid bruises on her thighs and yet no-one advised her to go to the Royal Ulster Constabulary , who were commonly regarded by republicans as “the enemy”. Ultimately, it seems one or more of the women she confided in chose to put political loyalty above their moral duty. The IRA were duly informed about what Cahill had been saying about “their man” Martin Morris.
Shortly after her eighteenth birthday, Máiría was summoned to a meeting with the IRA where she says she was asked by Briege Wright, an alleged IRA member, to tell her what had happened. She recalls a man called Seamus Finucane stood blocking the doorway. Unsurprisingly, Máiría “went to pieces”, and “numbed out” with a feeling like she had “died inside”.
Her ordeal did not end there. Máiría says for several nights each week over a period of months she was taken to different IRA safe houses and interrogated in forensic detail about the abuse she suffered. She was forbidden from telling anyone, even her parents, about these secret meetings. Máiría recalls in her book, “I felt ill and nervous, and I could never make plans because I knew I would have to cancel them if they decided I had to meet IRA ‘investigators’.”
Noticing her daughter’s weight loss and changes in behaviour, Máiría’s mother asked her “if anyone had touched her?” In response, the eighteen-year-old turned her face away. With the benefit of time, Máiría believes this is a perfect illustration of “the power that a secretive, armed organisation can have over a young person’s mind”.
The interrogations culminated when Máiría was forced to confront Martin Morris, the man she says repeatedly raped her. She was told by IRA leaders that they would “read her body language” to determine which of them was telling the truth.
Máiría recalls that Morris was given the notes she’d written documenting what she said had happened to her. His response was a furious and vitriolic denial. This would be traumatising for any victim, but Máiría has since been diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome, which would have made the already unconscionable situation more stressful still.
The IRA leadership decided there was not enough evidence to reach any sort of verdict. A few months after the confrontation with Morris, Máiría recalls a series of meetings with Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams. She claims that during one encounter, Adams told her that some abusers can be so manipulative that some victims “enjoy” the abuse and that he offered an apology for the interrogations she was forced to undergo. In a statement 14 years after the meetings were said to have taken place, Adams contradicted Maria’s account and said he had encouraged her to report her allegations.
Having been stripped of control during the abuse and secret investigation, Máiría was not even permitted to choose when or how to tell her parents about what had happened — that was left to the IRA. Máiría’s cousin Siobhan O’Hanlon, an active republican and friend of and assistant to Gerry Adams, and Máiría’s uncle “Cack”, visited the Cahill family home to tell her parents about the allegations and extrajudicial trial.
Writing afterwards, her father Philip Cahill said the couple “was horrified that family members had known and hadn’t talked to us as her parents”.
During a subsequent meeting between Máiría’s parents and her alleged IRA interrogators, Briege Wright and Seamus Finucane, the family were told that it must not be reported to the RUC. Máiría says she was warned by Finucane that should her family go to the authorities, Morris would be “set loose” on her. Finucane denies this; after Máiría first went public he released a statement claiming that he and others in the republican movement urged her to go to social services.
Máiría did not immediately turn away from activism within Sinn Féin; after all, it was everything she had ever known, and she feared that if she distanced herself then it would be assumed that she had been lying. So, she continued to volunteer, spending time with some of the republican women to whom she had originally confided the abuse.
Máiría’s parents arranged for her to see a counsellor. But even this most personal act became the locus for political antagonism when Siobhan O’Hanlon tried to push Máiría into revealing what she had told her therapist. Máiría believes that this would have been passed onto the IRA as evidence. Interestingly, she recalls her great-uncle Joe telling her that the IRA had been wrong to take it upon themselves to investigate her case. Perhaps surprisingly, the republican paramilitary founder told her she should have gone to the RUC in the first instance, adding that this was no longer an option since the IRA were already involved.
In the following months, two more teenage girls came forward with allegations Morris had abused them. Máiría was devastated. The IRA put Morris under house arrest, but he escaped. Local papers in Belfast carried the news.
During this time Máiría says that she was sent to speak with the former IRA commander, Padraic Wilson. Wilson, who had recently been released from the Maze prison under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, apparently apologised to Máiría for both her interrogation and for losing track of Morris. But Máiría was furious that a man she believed was an abuser had apparently been sheltered by the IRA and then had somehow gone to ground.
The knowledge that the man she believed had raped her was at large weighed on the young Máiría. She began to abuse painkillers, to self-harm and ultimately became an inpatient at a psychiatric hospital. Still suffering from what she describes as a “sort of Stockholm syndrome” she was driven to the hospital by one of those she said was involved in the interrogations, Briege Wright.
It was some years later that Máiría finally went to the police. In 2009, the news that Gerry Adams’s brother Liam had been accused of sexually abusing his daughter, Aine Dahlstrom, was the prompt Máiría needed. She walked into a Belfast police station to tell her story and gave hours of statements to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which replaced the RUC in 2001. To Máiría’s surprise, Morris was quickly located, arrested and charged.
The two other young women who had accused him joined the case as complainants. But it was 2011 before charges were brought against Padraic Wilson, Seamus Finucane, Agnes McCrory (known as Maura) and Briege Wright for a range of offences relating to membership of a proscribed organisation.
The cases of sexual assault and the alleged IRA membership were intertwined, but ten months after Morris’s arrest no decision had been made about whether to charge him with membership of a proscribed organisation. This mattered, as Máiría explains: “How could I explain the fright at being abused by a member of the IRA if I couldn’t say in court that he was an IRA member?”
The division of the case into separate trials also meant that Máiría would be expected to testify three times: for the sexual assault, the IRA membership and the IRA’s “investigation”. The slow rate of progress and the decision to try the charges separately were not the only hurdles she faced. Stringent reporting restrictions meant that the names of the defendants could not be shared — something Máiría felt put her at risk.
Furthermore, it meant that even if she waived her right to anonymity — as she has done — she would not be able to name those she believed were her tormentors. It was then, as her faith in the judiciary approached its nadir, that she contacted the BBC Spotlight programme. Eventually, after a concerted effort by Máiría and others, the reporting restrictions were lifted.
Over the four-year wait for the case to be heard, members of Máiría’s family who were set to give evidence for the prosecution against the IRA began to back out. Then the two other complainants began to waver, before also withdrawing. By this stage, Máiría had given birth to a baby girl, Saorlaith. Now, she needed to consider her daughter’s future as well as her own.
On 14 April 2014, Máiría was preparing to give her evidence about Morris’s membership of the IRA. Her barristers were confident that she would be a strong witness. But Máiría had long been concerned about the possibility that a man named Joe McCullough, Sinn Féin’s head of security, might appear for the defence. Just three days before the start of proceedings, Máiría had raised concerns with the PSNI. A detective reassured her that there was no need for the police to have interviewed McCullough because he had a clear record, aside from the possibility of “a couple of driving offences”, and that he was unlikely to turn up.
In fact, the BBC Spotlight programme revealed McCullough had been on remand in the IRA wing of the Maze and that a Provos publication had listed him as a “republican prisoner”. In a press statement shortly after the news broke, McCullough said he was in court to protect his own name.
On seeing his arrival at court, Máiría withdrew her evidence on the IRA membership charge. Within two weeks she had decided not to testify in the other two related cases. The defendants were all acquitted. But despite the bizarre behaviour of the prosecutors and PSNI, Máiría refused to be defeated — or silenced.
Máiría says she was driven by the need “to alert the public to the danger posed by Martin Morris, and to force Sinn Féin leaders to admit that there had been cover-ups of child sexual abuse”.
On 14 October 2014, Máiría’s ordeal was broadcast on Spotlight. The reaction was extreme, rapid and polarised.
Gerry Adams, then Sinn Féin leader, released a statement in which he claimed when he arranged to see Máiría she was “refusing to go to the RUC”. He suggested that Máiría had self-harmed shortly before their meeting and that he was concerned, a claim which Máiría says is at odds with her medical notes.
Perhaps the most unexpected attack came from Roy Greenslade at the Guardian. Then the paper’s media commentator, Greenslade snidely cast doubt on her story, writing that Máiría had “remained a Sinn Féin supporter for many years after the alleged rape, and only sought to go public with her sexual abuse allegations after she had turned against the organisation”.
The article, headlined “BBC programme on IRA rape allegations flawed by lack of political balance”, remained on the Guardian’s website until March 2021. Unlike most unsuspecting Guardian readers, Máiría already knew that Greenslade was a Sinn Féin supporter, and that he had written in the party’s paper An Phoblacht under the pseudonym George King for many years.
In a piece published on 25 February 2021, Greenslade admitted his support for the IRA and Sinn Féin. Cahill complained to the Guardian that he had written about her case without disclosing his political allegiance. She dubbed it a “propaganda piece against a rape victim”.
The paper’s readers’ editor, Elisabeth Ribbans, said Mr Greenslade should have declared his support for the IRA when he wrote about the case. Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, and Alan Rusbridger, the editor when Mr Greenslade wrote the original article, also apologised, but maintained he had no involvement. The Spectator reported that on 9 March 2021 he wrote to Catherine Martin, the Irish media minister: “I did not read this piece either before or after publication.”
However, a reply to a complaint had been sent from Alan Rusbridger’s Guardian email account which defended Greenslade’s article and quoted from it. The Spectator reported it read: “I do not believe Roy was dismissive of Ms Cahill in the article; indeed he said ‘That is not say to say that she was not raped. Nor does it negate her view that the IRA handled her complaint clumsily and sensitively.’” Asked about the email, Rusbridger said it was “handled by the managing editor, who drafted a response, which was then sent out from my email address”.
Máiría sent a subject access request and noted that in the 53 pages of unredacted emails there was no reference to Rusbridger’s email being drafted by someone else. Following the removal of the article, Rusbridger sent Máiría two emails — one to apologise and a second to inform her of his resignation from the Commission on the Future of the Media in Ireland, though he had already announced it publicly.
But while Máiría was being smeared in the Guardian, she received encouragement from across the sectarian divide. Though monstered online by diehard Sinn Féin supporters, she also drew praise for her courage in standing up to the man she said raped her, and to the political actors who tried to cover up her claims. Having gone public, Máiría found herself a figurehead. Others, mainly from republican backgrounds, contacted her with similar stories. She has referred many of the allegations to Northern Ireland’s social services. Máiría believes the IRA had “mimicked the worst behaviour of the Catholic church”, by sheltering suspected paedophiles within their own ranks and by moving them across borders:
“Think of the Catholic Church and the movement of priests around the jurisdiction. And you had these victims who were hugely afraid to speak out because of the perception of power and control the Catholic Church had over people. That’s not so different from the IRA — if you swapped the croziers for guns.”
Máiría has never stopped fighting for justice for those she believes were let down by the IRA. While the collapse of the trials was personally devastating, an investigation by Sir Keir Starmer in 2015 into how the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) dealt with the cases was a vindication of sorts.
Barra McGrory KC, Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions at the time, apologised and acknowledged the PPS and prosecuting counsel had let the women down. Starmer said the errors made it “almost inevitable” that the women would pull out of the process.
A 2018 report from the Police Ombudsman revealed that the police had intelligence about the alleged abuse ten years earlier but failed to act. PSNI chief constable George Hamilton apologised “unequivocally” for the hurt caused to the three victims and acknowledged “failures in the police investigation”. He said the report found “failures by the RUC in 2000, to share vital information which linked a man to the alleged abuse of children”.
As the scale of the failings in Máiría’s case became clear, the messaging from Sinn Féin politicians began to shift. Gerry Adams, and the new Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald agreed that Máiría had been raped, but they denied their party’s role in any cover-up. Máiría sees this as a “half-apology”.
Máiría Cahill may never see those she accuses of tormenting her in court. But through her determined honesty she has forced the powerful to face unpalatable truths from a dark period in Northern Ireland’s history. Today, Máiría reflects that while the abuse she endured still casts a shadow, she is “not solely defined by it”. She wants her readers to understand she is “a walking talking human being who has views on things like everyone else”.
“Writing Rough Beast allowed me to open a window into the world I grew up in, where some people got things very wrong in the way I was treated. I hope nobody is treated that way again.”
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